The health of char impacts the health of the Arctic

“I have been fishing for Arctic char as long as I can remember,” begins Eric Hitkolok of Kuglugtuk during his presentation at the ArcticNet scientific meeting in Iqaluit on Dec 5.

He’s been studying the general health of char and whitefish.

“When I was younger, the char were very plentiful and healthy. Now, some of them are sick. I wanted to find out why some fish are sick, and if it is from warmer water temperatures or contaminants, including runoff from the dump, sewage decanting, gas contamination, or mines and exploration camps….[or] the dumping of heavy equipment that has ended up in S Lake that impedes fishing with nets in winter.

“I also wanted to learn about the impacts of snagging on Arctic char and if it can affect their spawning. In 2021, I received funding from Inuit Qaujisarnirmut Pilirijjutit to study the health of Arctic char in the Coppermine River and the area near Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Since 2021, I have been collecting tissue samples from Arctic char and whitefish to measure mercury and other contaminants.”

Hitkolok then points to a chart of a mercury study he conducted with water samples he’s pictured taking that were then submitted to the University of Waterloo for analysis.

“This is the level that is important for people in my community,” he emphasizes, tapping the lower end of the chart consisting of green dots. “We learned there are lower levels of mercury [here],” but looking at another area of Kuglugtuk and samples taken from there, “we found high coliform levels in Dump Creek.”

The very name ‘Dump Creek’ is indicative of the human behaviours causing these problems that are being tackled by community leaders and scientists like Hitkolok.

“I have also collected otoliths”, or ear-bones of char, “to look at the age of fish and see if age is related to contaminants. I have collected water samples to measure contaminants, gas, and bacteria to see if the water is impacting the health of the fish,” said Hitkolok, who pointed to a photo and illustration of what was once a commonly used fishing spot in the community.

“This is the first time I have ever seen this part of the river dry,” he comments.

“I have collected fish that have been snagged or are sick and submitted them to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative in Guelph for necropsies,” he continued, showing slides of fish he said he finds in increasing numbers either injured from “snagging” — being temporarily caught in lines or nets — bruised or infected with illnesses undetectable until the fish is examined internally.

“This is the last year for my funding,” concludes Hitkolok, who said he plans to present his overall findings in the future. “The results will be important for the people of my community, because Arctic char is abundant year-round and is one of the main food sources.”

Should other financial support be secured, Hitkolok hopes to continue measuring water samples, levels of contaminants and fish injuries and illnesses in the years ahead.

Kira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunavut News